Garton-Ash, Bennett and Berkoff on niqab

Three articles today’s papers on the ongoing niqab controversy. First off, here’s the actor Steven Berkoff in today’s Independent letters:

For Jack Straw it concerns his ability to read the mind on the human face. Can the voice alone not carry infinite shades of meaning? Was poor blind Mr Blunkett that much less capable of reading the inner thoughts of others? For the articulate Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (9 October) it carries an unending proliferation of horrors from sexual repression and slavery to the inability to go swimming. If that is what they wish then let them be, since I have to admit that they are still far more elegant and dignified than some Western women whose sense of self-respect and dignity has long been eroded by their slavish following of the most absurd iniquities of fashion. When I see young women in the street with their buttocks hanging out and their thongs almost obscenely exposed, it hardly inspires admiration, more, I’m afraid, a feeling of revulsion.

In today’s Guardian, Timothy Garton-Ash offers this:

In any case, I don’t think Straw was right to suggest to niqab-wearing women at his MP’s constituency surgery that they might like to remove the face-covering, however courteously it was done. After all, he was in a position of power in relation to them. Presumably they had come to him with a problem they hoped he could solve. In that context, the distinction between a request and a command is somewhat blurred. Indeed “you might like to do X” is a familiar English syntax of polite command. Given that these women were availing themselves of a classic democratic channel of redress - and thereby demonstrating, in a far more important way than what they wore, a degree of integration into British society - I think he might just have worked a little harder to get their meaning.

And just how difficult is that anyway? I recently took part in a degree ceremony at Sheffield Hallam University. It was a heart-warming event. Many of the graduands were Asian British women - often, I was told, the first in the history of their family to go to university - and some of them came on stage to collect their degrees wearing a hijab. There was polite applause for each student and louder cheering for a few who were especially popular. One of the loudest cheers went up for a female student in a full niqab. Clearly her fellow students knew the woman behind the veil.

Lastly, you have Caroline Bennett in today’s Guardian, comparing veils to 19th-century corsets:

And if Straw is, as the Tory vice-chairman, Sayeeda Warsi, and others have noted, a white middle-aged man, does this inevitably make him ineligible to comment? It was, after all, a white middle aged man, the American philanthropist and anti-slavery campaigner, Gerrit Smith, who, interfering in corsets that did not concern him, helped launch the movement for women’s dress reform; a cause, he argued, which was indivisible from women’s rights. “Strive as you will to elevate woman,” he wrote in 1855, “nevertheless the disabilities and degradation of her dress, together with that large group of false views of the uses of her being and of her relations to man, symbolised and perpetuated by her dress, will make your striving vain.”

In common with today’s critics of the veil, Gerrit Smith, his daughter Elizabeth and their fellow clothing reformers had to contend with the fact that most of the women constricted by laced-up whalebone and petticoats insisted that they wore their absurd skirts and corsets gladly, just as readily as they embraced dependency on men as their own free choice. Most women, Smith noted, “are content in their helplessness and poverty and destitution of rights. Nay, they are so deeply deluded, as to believe, that all this belongs to their natural and unavoidable lot”.

The comparison with corsets might perhaps be an obvious one: a whole generation of women chose to wear garments which any other would have rightly dismissed as unpractical and uncomfortable. Still, the fact remains that the corsets persisted for another two generations before dying out, as an item of everyday clothing, entirely in the early 20th century. They were also a relatively new fashion; Regency corsets, for example, were nowhere near as restrictive as those of the Victorian or Edwardian periods. Even today, high heels are common among women in our generation despite the fact that they are unhealthy. I can recall seeing a clip of a woman talking about the uncomfortable shoes which were fashionable that season, saying that she wore the shoes because she would otherwise be “démodée” but she wished to God that the fashion would change. Perhaps some women felt that way about Victorian corsetry, but others held to it because they felt it accentuated their femininity (you might read this article by Siri Hustvedt about her experience wearing one for a film shoot).

Niqab, despite its relative novelty here in the west (in its present form; veiled hats were common until quite recently, not just at funerals), is not a fashion whim from the 19th century, but part of a tradition going back many more centuries. There is also no religion which instructs women to wear a corset, much less to lace it up to knock a third off a woman’s waist. It is nothing like as uncomfortable, providing the material used is suitable (which, admittedly, it often isn’t), does not impede vision, contrary to popular opinion, and does not in and of itself impede movement either, unless something restrictive is being worn further down. In countries where niqab is traditional, both men and women wear loose clothes, such as long robes and shalwar-kameez, because that is more suitable for the climate.

There is, of course, a certain category of western feminist who cannot think of anything more humiliating than having to wear a headscarf, let alone cover their faces, and in their support for women of Muslim background who (in whatever numbers) feel similarly, they are willing to deprive women of things like education and career prospects unless they fall into line. Experience in the English-speaking world shows that niqab, let alone hijab, need not be a barrier to progress in most careers; it is people’s attitudes which make a barrier.

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